Case Study: Call to Action in Web Design Usability


I’ve recently been working on a new website for a very large organization. The organization is made up of numerous policy teams who are all tasked with keeping different topics of interest up to date. The one downfall of this is that each policy team considers their content to be the most important. This has led to every new section being given to us with the instruction of “making it more prominent”.

We keep informing them every time we make something ‘more prominent’ we are taking prominence from the previously highlighted sections, effectively making nothing stand out. While researching the topic, to formulate an evidence based repost for our client, I discovered numerous reasons why it’s essential to distil your calls to action down to only the core outcomes you want from your audience.

Look at me!

Be wary of causing choice paralysis

“…we think, if we provide (users) with 200 brands of peanut butter, they are more likely to find a brand that suits their taste. Schwatz cites surveys done in supermarkets that showed the reverse. When customers were presented with a huge selection of brands of a certain item, fewer customers bought the item than when fewer brands were displayed.”

Christopher Heng

Choice paralysis occurs when users are supplied with too many similar choices. The abundance of choice leaves consumers confused as to which option to take. They end up not making a choice at all, in fear of making the wrong decision.

Your calls to action should have clearly distinct outcomes

“…it is not so much the number of actions as the distinctiveness of each.”

Paul Boag

If you need to provide your users with more than one call to action on a page, try to ensure that your users understand the difference between them. For example, having one call to action labeled ‘Sign-up’ and another labeled ‘Register’ would make it very difficult for any users to decipher which option they should take. If both calls to action seem to lead to the same outcome the likelihood of confusion increases.

We don’t read pages, we scan them

“One of the very well-documented facts about Web use is that people tend to spend very little time reading most Web pages. Instead, we scan (or skim) them, looking for words or phrases that catch our eye.

Steve Krug (Don’t make me think)

If users read everything on a Web page in the order they are displayed, numerous calls to action wouldn’t be as much of a problem. The individual would read the supporting paragraph, decide they want to read more about that and hit the corresponding link.

However, as Steve Krug describes, “we scan (or skim) them, looking for words or phrases that catch our eye”, which means it is unlikely that your users are going to read the accompanying paragraphs and will instead choose where to go next by the text within the call to action. The more call to actions they have to scan through, the higher the chances they will choose the wrong one.

There are only so many ways to make something stand out

Every time our client asks us to make something ‘stand out’ on a page they don’t seem to grasp our warnings that this will dilute previous calls to action. I think the reason for this is because they are used to seeing the page in its previous state and therefore have become desensitized to the previous calls to action. So when we add another one this stands out, to them, far more than any others.

However, a new viewer of that page has no previous experience with it and therefore everything is new to them and therefore fighting for their attention.

There are only a few different design techniques that can be used to make something stand out; contrast, white space, size, positioning etc. With this in mind, when you have numerous calls to action on a page it is very unlikely that any of them will stand out more than others.

More choice leads to greater dismay because expectations are raised

“When people have more choices, they expect more, because they expect that they will be able to choose the exact item that meets their needs perfectly.”

Christopher Heng

Our client’s homepage consists of a number of pods, with each pod representing a different segment of their target audience. We tried to create broad pods, to ensure that everyone who visits the site instantly notices a section that could potentially be for them. However, our client wanted to present some very specific roles along with our broader suggestions.

This presented the problem that a visitor to the site could see these more specific options and believe that there would be a specific role for them, thus raising their expectations. When they discover that their specific area hasn’t been represented, they could wrongly decide that this site doesn’t have what they are looking for.

However, if we were able to keep the number of pods to a minimum, users would be more likely to want to explore a section that could possibly relate to them.

To conclude

When thinking about the possible calls to action on your site, be sure to ask yourself exactly why every call to action needs to be there. More calls to action lead to a more complicated interface and could possibly lead to more dissatisfaction.

Try to highlight only the most important actions on your site, otherwise you could risk none of your calls to action being noticed. Finally, I thought I’d leave you with an excellent example of a focused call to action.

The guys at 280 slides have decided they want their users to try a demo of their product and so this is the only call to action on the homepage. They could easily have given numerous options to their users increasing the cognitive load, however they have done a great job of focusing their audience on the task they think is most important to them.

280 Slides screenshot

Related reading

The Paralysis of Choice and How to Improve Sales and Customer Satisfaction

Call to Action Buttons: Examples and Best Practices

10 techniques for an effective ‘call to action’



  1. Anouar

    A brilliant article!when i was reading it i just felt like: wow, i wanted to express that but you say it and write it in a so clean and clear way!
    Thank you very much !

  2. Halldór Örn Guðnason

    Thanks for a great post. I will definitively be using this as a reference for myself and designers I’m working with.

  3. Vlad

    You make some excellent points in this article. As designers it’s important for us to keep guiding our clients towards what is best for them.

  4. David

    Call to action require but if many call to action create confusion. Thanks for good info.

  5. Good post. I’ve been thinking more and more about the user experience, but haven’t put much time into how I’d gauge that. Article definitely has me thinking even more about it than I already was.

  6. Jae Xavier

    Great post :)

    I want to share also: Using CTA(Call to Action) is mandatory in your content. For example…

    Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. JOIN OUR PROGRAM TODAY!

    And that should be in bold or italic and links to the credit card page.

    close, Close, CLOSE the sale!

  7. Great post, I agree with the points that you have made about usability. I believe it is equally as important to educate your clients regarding designing usable and accessible websites. Great post- thanks! :)

  8. Jacob

    Great article, always nice to see people taking more of a focus on usability and its consequences.

    I think the thing is, people don’t understand exactly what usability and usability testing is about, and hence don’t see the value that it can give back to them.

    We created our own usability testing tool which people use in lots of neat ways. You can ask questions like ‘What part of the page most attracts your attention?’, and see where people click, and how long it takes them to think about it. With this information, you very soon learn what elements of the page are effective, and if the page is overloaded with information or calls to action.

    As you mentioned this in your article, I’m curious to know what you do in terms of testing usability and effectiveness of your sites. Do you just follow your gut instinct, or use other tools to prove your feelings?

    If you are interested in our service, send me an email and I can set you up with a free test to have a bit of a play.


    • Hi Jacob,

      I actually work for a large digital agency that has a dedicated UX team. We have a usability lab where we test out theories and ideas (if the project has the budget)

      I actually have an account for your service already. It’s great for being able to test ideas at a low cost. Services like yours are making it easier to test the usability of our sites and that’s a great thing, which can only improve them.

  9. Sean

    Good post and would consider exploring more about improving or identifying location of CTA’s on your website. The User testing side of CTA’s is one of most important aspects of a good CTA based on your sites visitors and trends in the market.